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What Language Shall I Borrow: On poetry and God and creating, Part II

February 4, 2014

What language shall I borrow?  

What language shall I borrow
To thank thee, dearest friend?

Attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux

How do I speak what cannot be spoken?  How can I say with words the very thing that words fail to express?  How can I paint a picture of a beauty which itself pushes the boundaries of color and form?  How can I play notes that capture the sublime?  These questions nag at me, and at so many people who struggle to bring something new into being.  Yet there it is, the truth of the matter:  we keep trying, and in fact we often succeed in touching on the mystery of things.  Our theopoesis is in fact possible.  Why, then, do I so often feel that I’m trying to touch something just out of my reach with my words, with my making?  Because what I can say never says it all; our poesis is never exhaustive.  Ivone Gebara reminds me that “all that we say about God is an approximation, a model for expressing our perplexed grasp of the mystery that envelops us.”

What a lovely way to understand God, one that reminds me of Psalm 139:  O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.  You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.  You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.  How do I wrap my mind around being known by God, being enveloped by God?  One way, for me, is to turn to language, always remembering that language is not univocal; rather, it is analogical.  I speak about God and life and the heart of the matter truthfully but not fully.  When I read a poem or see a painting or hear a song, and it moves me to the core of my being, I often am dumbstruck, literally moved beyond words.  Whatever moved me resonates with the truth inside, with God present within me.  And sometimes that whole experience pushes me to create: in response, in gratitude, in overflowing fullness.  So part of the life of my theopoesis, my calling forth, my ‘God making’, is finding a basis, a ground for my language, for my making.

If I am to borrow language, I must be a part of life, must speak and hear and read and listen.  My theopoesis, then, must be grounded in life, the grit and grime, the stuff of this world.  And I must start in silence, by listening.  This is at the heart of my epistemology, of how I know.  Rowan Williams writes, “Before authentic re-creation is possible, there must be an entirely committed immersion in the world, a watching and listening in silence; but the deeper this immersion becomes, the less it is possible to translate the world into new words, new images…. The facile use of the ‘linguistic past’ is first abandoned, as the poet learns properly to listen to language, to the world, and what he hears is, ultimately, a speech too vast to be rendered, interpreted, translated in his language, through his person.”  Williams is writing about Job, and I think this is true for us all.  When confronted with the vastness of the world, the many and complex and constant messages we receive render us speechless.  What am I to do?

Gebara points the way for me.  “Knowing is not primarily a rational discourse on what we know,” she writes.  “To know is first of all to experience, and what we experience cannot always be expressed in words.  What we say we know is a pale reflection of what we experience.  What we say about what we experience is no more than a limited ‘translation’ of that experience.  Therefore, what we experience can neither be fully thought through by reason nor exhaustively expressed in words.”  Out of our experience comes our theopoesis.  We know through experience, and there is a fullness to this which cries out to becoming; there is potential here.

My theology is impacted by such an epistemology.  Because I know through experience, God is known through my experiences.  God is present, immanent, in the places where I live life:  the meetings, the daily rhythm, the words we say, the gestures, the driving, the love.  Rather than God being detached, transcendent, un-human, God is present in the midst of this life and this planet we call home.  Kathleen Norris explores this notion, writing that “the Bible is full of evidence that God’s attention is indeed fixed on the little things.  But this is not because God is a Great Cosmic Cop, each to catch us in minor transgressions, but simply because God loves us – loves us so much that the divine presence is revealing even in the meaningless workings of daily life.  It is in the ordinary, the here-and-now, that God asks us to recognize that the creation is indeed refreshed like dew-laden grass that is ‘renewed in the morning (Ps 90:5), or to put it in more personal and also theological terms, ‘our inner nature is being renewed every day (2 Cor 4:16).  Seen in this light, what strikes many modern readers as the ludicrous attention to detail in the book of Leviticus, involving God in the minutiae of daily life – all the cooking and cleaning of a people’s domestic life – might be revisioned as the very love of God.  A God who cares so much as to desire to be present to us in everything we do.”  Norris is on to something.  Over and over God is depicted in the Bible as being intricately involved with the workings of this world.  It’s just that sometimes, I am out of sync and miss it.  Like Brother Lawrence, I must practice the presence of God.  I can no longer sleepwalk through life.

And isn’t the incarnation itself a sign that God cares about the earth, about bodies, about life lived here and now?  God could be working in the world in thousands of ways, yet God chooses to take on human form, to be human, in the flesh.  Jesus’ very life and horrifying death attest to the importance of the material world.  Emily Dickinson recognized this truth, and she found in religion, and in particular Jesus’ life, an important image of God and the holiness of divinity that was present in Jesus.  Roxanne Harde writes of Dickinson, “Religion gave her the pattern and language with which to make sense of herself, of others, of the world around her.”  Dickinson was especially taken with a Jesus who shares our griefs and sorrows, writing “When Jesus tells us about his Father, we distrust him.  When he shows us his Home, we turn away, but when he confides to us that he is ‘acquainted with Grief,’ we listen, for that also is an Acquaintance of our own.”  Dickinson got it; her own epistemology was grounded in her experience, and her faith rested in Jesus’ ability to share in that experience.  The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, John’s gospel reminds us.  What an incredible notion:  my very words find their home in the Word; I touch the divine, speak divinity into being, with words.  In the life and death of Jesus, I can see that God cares about life as I live it, with all its joy and sorrow, daily tedium and moments of the sublime, wondering and wandering and everything in between.  Even my words find a home in the Word that was and is and is to come.

Gebara explores a definition of God as relatedness.  “To call God ‘relatedness’ is to use a word to express something that goes beyond all words; it describes an experience, but goes beyond all experiences,” she writes.  “It speaks of God as possibility, as opening, as the unexpected, the unknown; as physical and metaphysical.”  I like this notion, because it allows me to speak of God in a non-exhaustive way that includes my experience; it takes belief in God beyond the realm of mere intellectual assent and meets me where I live.  God lives in the potential, the possibility, and I become co-creator with God in this present moment.  This kind of knowing is what Keller talks about when discussing truth and relationality.  “We become who we are only in relation; we are network creatures,” she writes.  Keller goes on to discuss the flow of truth and relates it to the Holy Spirit.  “The flow of truth is … the movement of the holy spirit in the world.  Spirit and truth together name the fluidity of a process we cannot possess, neither in propositions nor in practices, neither in creeds nor in prayers.  We belong within it.  It does not belong to us. … It is a way, not an end.”  I am caught up in this flow of truth; it takes me, moves me, keeps me in process, keeps my theopoesis possible.  Again, Dickinson’s poetry comes to mind, particularly these lines.

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

These lines capture the potential that the world offers, the possibility of gathering Paradise.  I, like Dickinson, spread wide my narrow self and receive the Mystery; I live there; the Mystery lives in me.  My theopoesis brings God to the surface; I relate to God as Relatedness.  Gebara captures this, noting that “relatedness is not an entity apart from other beings; rather, it is a mystery that is associated with all that exists.  Relatedness is utterance, word, attraction, flux, energy, and passion, insofar as it is the materiality and spirituality of all that is.  We are all both created within and creators of this relatedness.”  When I make something new, God is present.  I utter the unutterable; I speak the word; I follow the flow of becoming and live in the passion of divine Eros and divine Agape, give and take, ancient rhythm that it is.

From → On Faith

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